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l January 2004 l

The Kashmir Bachao Andolan Publication

l Vol 3, No 8 l

E D I T O R ' S   C H O I C E

Musharraf: Walking the knife-edge
Ajai Sahni


The coup and the assassination have been integral to political transition in Pakistan virtually since the moment of its creation [the country's first Prime Minister, Liaqat Ali Khan, was assassinated in 1951, and violence or machinations have marked virtually every change of regime since]. This ruinous legacy continues to reassert itself at each crucial turn of the country's history. So, again, even as the Pakistani dream continues to unravel, the country's military dictator General Pervez Musharraf - himself in power as the result of a coup against an elected Government - came under two serious attempts on his life within eleven days, on December 14 and December 25, 2003, the latter involving two separate suicide attacks within moments of each other.

Speaking on national television after the second assassination attempt, Musharraf spoke harshly about the "cowardly people who attack while hiding", and declared that "terrorists and extremists" opposed to the global war against terrorism might have plotted the attacks, adding further that he would not be cowed down by such actions. It would appear that the lines between the Pakistani state and the Islamist extremist forces that have long been its protégés would finally harden into a clear antagonism.

Both the assassination attempts and such a crystallization of attitudes have been expected ever since Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant, speaking on the second anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the US, had declared in a message to "our brother Muslims in Pakistan": "How long will you be patient with Musharraf, the traitor who sold out the blood of the Muslims in Afghanistan and handed over the Arab emigrant Mujahideen, the descendants of the Companions of the Prophet, to crusader America?"

Things, however, are never entirely clear in Pakistan, and the establishment has so long been in bed with the terrorists that the disengagement is far from simple or inevitable. Thus, even as President Musharraf was denouncing the "cowardly people" who had attacked him, his Information Minister, Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad, was arguing that 'the jehadi culture in Pakistan could not be changed and he who denied jihad had no place in Islam', adding, however, that "whether or not it is jihad can only be decided by the state." The distinction between 'our jehadis' and 'their terrorists' has evidently survived in Pakistan's political rhetoric, despite the attacks on the country's current President. The ambiguity is also reflected in an interesting turn of phrase in reports on the assassination attempts on Pakistan television; the expression "khud kush hamlavar" or 'suicide attacker', a decidedly pejorative description, was used repeatedly to describe the failed assassins. Islamist suicide bombers in Kashmir, in Palestine, and in other parts of the world are routinely glorified as 'fidayeen', 'those who sacrifice themselves', and this has been the conventional appellation on Pakistan TV as well.

Such ambivalence is, however, becoming progressively unsustainable in Pakistan, if only because the line between 'our jehadi' and 'their terrorist' is being rapidly obliterated. Many of the prominent terrorist groups that are perceived as being close to the state and substantially controlled by the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) now have cadres moonlighting for, and deeply sympathetic to, Al Qaeda and its affiliates, even where the top leadership remains apparently compliant.

The growing danger to Musharraf and his regime, however, does not come from the swelling ranks of 'their terrorists' alone. Preliminary disclosures blame the Christmas assassination attempt on the Al Jihad, a relatively minor terrorist group that has been virtually inactive for several years, but matters are far from simple. Both the recent attacks reflect high levels of complexity as well as of complicity within at least a section of the establishment, and these discredit the possibility of a rag tag operation. Both incidents occurred within a hundred yards of one another in Rawalpindi, which is the General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army and the most militarised city in a militarised country; they occurred within the high security Cantonment areas; they occurred on the President's daily route, which can reasonably be expected to be completely sanitized. The December 14 incident is particularly significant in this context. Over half a tonne of explosives had been transported to, and then unloaded, concealed and primed at, a bridge that is heavily guarded round the clock, on the regular route between the President's office and residence; and had been detonated by remote control, presumably by an assassin lying in wait in sight of the bridge [the attempt failed, according to the official Pakistani line, because of the jammers on the President's cavalcade, though it is still unclear how or why the explosion eventually did occur over a minute after the procession had passed beyond the bridge]. Again, on December 25, reports indicate that there were two Presidential motorcades - one of them a decoy - moving simultaneously on two different routes, but the terrorists were able to correctly identify and target Musharraf's motorcade. There is, consequently, in both incidents, substantial circumstantial evidence to suggest an 'inside job'.

If disaffected elements in the Army, presumably at a level sufficiently high as to engineer such operations, are now, indeed, targeting Musharraf (and this remains essentially in the sphere of informed speculation) the fragile equation that has been contrived between powerful and ideologically incompatible political entities - including armed non-state groups - to maintain a modicum of order in Pakistan is now dangerously imperilled. To the extent, moreover, that much of the world, including the US and increasingly India, has invested almost its entire faith on the survival of this tenuous arrangement, and in General Musharraf, to contain the burgeoning dangers of this epicentre of terrorism, the situation is grim. As The Washington Post noted, "The past week has given the Bush administration more cause to reconsider its heavy reliance on a single general, Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf, to maintain stability in one of the world's most dangerous areas."

The assassination attempts in Pakistan also underline the frailty and brittleness of the current and vaunting peace processes in South Asia. While both the Indian and Pakistani leadership are, in the run up to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit in January 2004, currently competing to outdo one another in the rhetoric of South Asian 'unification', the fragility of the balance, the contingent nature of all plans and enterprises in the region, and the degree to which the initiative lies with organisations committed to terrorism, make a mockery of all such projections.

For the moment, Musharraf has survived and the SAARC summit is expected to go ahead on schedule, with all regional leaders having reconfirmed their participation, despite serious and legitimate security concerns. To believe, however, that peace is somewhere around the corner, is delusional. Pakistan and its leaders - including Musharraf and his generals - have only just begun to pay the price for their long sponsorship of terrorism, what one leading Pakistani commentator described as "the 'globalisation' of terrorism we performed in the past decade", and the conflagration will escalate substantially before it is eventually doused. Regrettably, it is not Pakistan alone that will have to pay the price of its past and ongoing transgressions.

Ajai Sahni is the Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management.

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